‘Rising up Against the Empire’ Hugo Chavez at the UN

by Joe Auciello / October 2006 issue of Socialist Action

“Devil.” That’s the only word most Americans are likely to know of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s address last month to the United Nations General Assembly. That one word provoked a hailstorm of condemnation from U.S. reporters and politicians, which, conveniently enough, diverts attention away from the substance of Chavez’s speech to the less weighty matter of its style.

Focusing on the alleged bad manners of Chavez’s presentation means ignoring his themes and his pointed criticisms of President Bush.

Crying “foul” about “devil” means ignoring the foul acts of the United States in Latin America and the Middle East—which is precisely the point of the propaganda attack leveled against Chavez.

President Chavez’s speech was a rebuttal to George Bush, who had addressed the General Assembly the day before. Bush’s speech, directed to the people of the Middle East and Iran, was a fantastical mélange of fiction and falsehoods:

“To the people of Iran, the United States respects you. We respect your country”—a country that Bush had previously called, like Iraq, an “axis of evil.”

“We look to the day,” Bush continued, “when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace.”

This is the language of “regime change,” of military invasion—of looking forward to the day when the U.S. can again install in Iran a government that pledges to pursue U.S. policies even against the needs of its own people. It would be, in short, a government just like the dictatorship of the Shah of Iran who was placed in power, propped up, and later given exile by the United States.

To the American president who “came here [the UN], talking as if he owned the world,” the president who assumes God-like power to remake the world according to his design, Chavez answered, “the devil came here yesterday. … And it smells of sulfur still.”

In choosing these sharp, strong words in a setting where tepid, timid niceties are the norm, Chavez spoke, not in the voice of diplomats, but deliberately in the voice of the people, “who are rising up against American imperialism, who are shouting for equality, for respect, for the sovereignty of nations.”

Chavez’s reply to Bush was not an expression of some personal pique as it has been portrayed in the American press. Since Bush had lectured to the people of the world, Chavez took the opportunity to answer on their behalf. He asked the Assembly to consider “what those people would say if they were given the microphone and if they could speak with one voice to the American imperialists.”

Chavez’s answer was unequivocal and clear. “Yes, you can call us extremists, but we are rising up against the empire, against the model of domination.” These are the statements that provoke yelps of outrage and anger from the U.S. ruling class, its politicians, and its press.

U.S. politicians rally ’round the flag

Though many prominent Republicans refused to comment on the record, claiming it was beneath their dignity to discuss Chavez, others were more forthcoming. New York Governor Pataki said Chavez should “go back to Venezuela,” while Republican Senator John McCain complained about “these two-bit dictators who have the airfare to New York.”

Fearing a patriotic, right-wing backlash, Democratic Party leaders lost no time in distancing themselves from Chavez with a volley of cowardly, rally-’round-the-flag rhetoric.

Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, who had cooperated with the Venezuelan government in providing discounted heating oil for the poor, was quick to strike a pose of indignation. “You don’t come into my country,” Rangel said, “you don’t come into my congressional district, and you don’t condemn my president….

“I just want to make it abundantly clear to Hugo Chavez or any other president: Don’t come to the United States and think because we have problems with our president that any foreigner can come to our country and not think that Americans do not feel offended when you offend our chief of state.”

Rep. Rangel told the truth about himself and other Democrats. What offends them is not a dishonest and dirty war but the person who speaks out boldly and colorfully against it.

The victims of U.S. aggression include not only American soldiers, Iraqi insurgents, and innocent bystanders but victims at home as well— with the Iraq war now costing an estimated $2 billion a week. They are the people who find Medicaid benefits slashed, whose unemployment insurance runs out, whose children are trapped in shoddy schools, and who live in Gulf Coast cities and towns that have yet to be rebuilt.

The Democrats have some differences with Bush about the war and its consequences, but these can be resolved. Their real difference, the disagreement that rouses their ire, is with anyone who rises up and speaks out.

For the hundreds of thousands who have marched against the Iraq war, or who have worked for social justice, Rep. Rangel’s words should be remembered in 2008, when the Democrats again try to masquerade as a real alternative to the Republicans.

Given a choice—a choice of supporting President Bush and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or supporting President Chavez, who criticizes Bush for those wars—the most liberal of New York Democrats stands to attention, salutes “my president,” and condemns the “foreigner.”

Shortly after his UN appearance, President Chavez gave an interview on the Tavis Smiley NPR radio program and answered those who “considered my speech undiplomatic.”

Elaborating on his use of the term “devil,” Chavez said, “Now let’s get to the bottom of the issue. Is it not a devilish action to order the invasion of a country? Lying to your own citizens? Throwing high-position bombs and highly destructive bombs against houses filled with people? Against entire peoples?

“You see, it is really an act of devils to use weapons of mass destruction, to use chemical weapons, against entire cities, poisoning the air, poisoning the water. In Fallujah, even the birds died. Cockroaches died. All traces of life disappeared in Fallujah. That’s an act of devils.”

From Che to Chavez

Hugo Chavez’s speech to the UN and his harsh criticism of the United States recalls the speech that Che Guevara presented to the UN General Assembly in 1964. In fact, several of the key themes were quite similar.

In his talk Che did not refer to “devils,” but he, too, condemned U.S. imperialism in scathing terms: “… ‘Western Civilization’ disguises behind its showy façade a picture of hyenas and jackals. … A carnivorous animal that feeds on unarmed peoples. That is what imperialism does to men. That is what distinguishes the imperial ‘white man.’”

Chavez, towards the beginning of his speech, said, “The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species.” He left no doubt that the United States is the prime instigator of violence in the world.

The facts of history compelled Che to state the same point. Referring explicitly to Vietnam, Che noted, “We are faced with a case in which world peace is in danger and, moreover, the lives of millions of human beings in this part of Asia are constantly threatened and subjected to the whim of the invader.”

Later in his talk, Che cited further instances of U.S. aggression, especially in Latin America. Surveying some six decades of 20th-century history, Che recited a long list of nations where the U.S. military had intervened directly: Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. He cited covert interventions in Columbia, Guatemala, and Venezuela.

In later decades El Salvador, Panama, Grenada, and Nicaragua would become additional victims of direct and covert military interventions by the U.S.

All these instances combine to reinforce Che’s conclusion, which, to this day, reads like a warning: “The imperialists are preparing to repress the peoples of the Americas and are establishing an International of Crime.”

Both Che and Chavez exposed the hypocrisy used to justify U.S. imperial ambitions. Che Guevara stated frankly, “The United States intervenes in Latin America invoking the defense of free institutions. … It must be clearly established, however, that the government of the United States is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetrator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population.”

For his part, Chavez quoted and answered President Bush who had said, “My country wants peace.” Chavez drew a distinction between the “citizens of the United States,” who have no compulsion to make war, and the “false democracy of elites.”

Chavez concluded, “The government of the United States doesn’t want peace. It wants to exploit its system of exploitation, of pillage, of hegemony through war. These words echo the conclusion of Fidel Castro when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1960. Castro asked rhetorically, “Have colonialists or imperialists ever lacked a pretext when they wanted to invade a country? Never! Somehow they have always found a pretext.

“And what are these pretexts used for, what purpose do they serve?” Castro’s answer to that question, in 1960, applies all too accurately today.

He said, “The problems of Latin America are similar to those of the rest of the world—to those of Africa and Asia. The world is divided up among the monopolies; the same monopolies that we find in Latin America are also found in the Middle East. There, the oil is in the hands of monopolistic companies that are controlled by France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands—in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, in short, in all corners of the world. …

“The monopolistic interests do not want to see the development of countries. What they want is to exploit the natural resources of the countries and the peoples themselves.”

Chavez, in his talk at the UN, referred specifically to his recent visit to Cuba and voiced his support for Fidel Castro as president of the nonaligned movement. Chavez linked Venezuela to Cuba as an ally—earlier in his talk he included Bolivia, as well—when he declared, “a new, strong movement has been born, a movement of the South. We are men and women of the South.

Re-establish the UN?

Perhaps the area where Chavez compares unfavorably to Che and Fidel is in his expressed hope to transform the United Nations itself into a bulwark against U.S. imperialism.

Chavez rightly says, “The UN system, born after the Second World War, collapsed. It’s worthless. … We have no power, no power to make any impact on the terrible situation in the world.” It certainly is true that the UN has shown itself incapable and unwilling to prevent the United States from launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To transform the UN into a force capable of resisting imperialism, Chavez calls for an enlarged Security Council without veto power, open decision-making, and an increase in the authority of the secretary general.

Whether such reforms would improve the functioning of the UN or not, these proposals underestimate the strength and resilience of imperialism, which has no intention of turning over one of its weapons—the United Nations—into the hands of the oppressed.

The United Nations cannot be used to create world revolution; it is world revolution that will recreate a United Nations.

Despite this unfounded confidence in the UN, Chavez used it well to oppose U.S. imperialism. Chavez spoke to the General Assembly, to the people of the world, as Che did, “with the full sense of responsibility that the use of this rostrum implies, while at the same time fulfilling the unavoidable duty of speaking clearly and frankly.”